Put Culture First

Everyone wants to be happy. We make purchase decisions, career decisions and major life decisions in an attempt to increase our well-being. And yet, as a society, we’re not doing a very good job of it. While we’ve collectively created and enjoyed tremendous advances in technology and innovation, and increased our ability to make and consume stuff, the level of joy, fulfillment and life satisfaction in the developed world has not increased in modern times.

As leaders, we have a tremendous opportunity to do something about this. To create a happier world, starting with our own organizations and communities. To create workplaces where people thrive.  You must make culture-building your #1 priority.

Putting your main focus on building a great culture will enable you to:

  1. make more money,
  2. enjoy the journey, and
  3. know yourself as an extraordinary human being.

Let’s take a look at each of these:

1. You will make more money


Research has proven that creating a strong, aligned culture leads to dramatically improved financial performance. University of Chicago Professor Ron Burton studied culture and showed a positive correlation between culture and financial performance. Stanford Professors and ‘Good to Great’ authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that companies with core values and purpose have outperformed the general stock market by a factor of 12.

A shining recent example is Tony Hsieh and his team at Zappos – the online shoe store (and now online happiness company). The team at Zappos has built a billion dollar business largely through their focus on culture-building. Here’s what Tony had to say about culture:

“At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers – will naturally happen on its own.”

“For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.”

2. You will enjoy the journey


Too often, successful entrepreneurs who’ve done an amazing job building a great product that meets customer needs, find themselves suddenly running a company that they don’t want to be a part of. The ‘people issues’ become so overwhelming that they soon are so drained that they decide to leave or sell the company, way before realizing the idea’s full potential.  Enjoying the journey is not just a ‘nice-to-have’; it’s a strategic business imperative.

Randy Komisar, entrepreneur and Kleiner Perkins partner wrote a great book in the 1990s called The Monk and the Riddle, in which he described the ‘deferred life plan’ that most people use on their quest to a happy life.

The “Deferred Life Plan” is simple. There are two steps. Step one: “Do what you have to do.” Then eventually, hopefully, step two: “Do what you want to do.”

The trouble is that most people never get to step 2. And even the few that do…

“Either they never knew what they “really” wanted to do or they’ve spent so much time in the first step and invested so much psychic capital that they’re completely lost without it.”

If you’re prioritizing something other than creating a workplace you love, you’re likely following your own version of the ‘Deferred Life Plan.’ In an interview about the book, Randy shares that:

“The distinction between drive and passion is crucial. Passion pulls you toward something you cannot resist. Drive pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do.”

I think this is a powerful distinction that most Type A people fail to make. Think about it for yourself, when you get up in the morning and head to work, do you feel an irresistible pull toward something? Or are you driven to ‘not fail’ or feel compelled to charge forward toward some arbitrary goal? Creating a strong culture starts with finding that vision you feel irresistibly pulled toward. With that as a foundation, you will inevitably find the journey meaningful and enlivening. Again, in Randy’s words:

“When all is said and done, the journey is the reward. There is nothing else.”

3. You’ll know yourself as an extraordinary human being.


It’s extraordinary to put culture first. To make the hard tradeoffs – to when you’re feeling pressure to not hire someone who could make a big difference to your bottom line because they don’t fit with your culture. To be willing to fire one of your top producers because they violated one of the company’s values. To live by a set of values and principles that you truly believe in and pursue a purpose that you find meaningful.

Think about your legacy. Do you want to be known and know yourself as someone who built an organization where people loved to work, and that made them better people for having been part of your organization?  Who didn’t do business as usual? Imagine a marketing associate who never believed in herself who, in your environment, was inspired to launch a new campaign on her own… and the satisfaction she feels when it succeeds.  Picture your lead engineer instead of being stressed out and frustrated when he leaves work every day, able to go home with a smile on his face and be really present for his family.  Think about the difference that makes not just for him, but for all the people in his life.

Lou Gerstner, one of the legendary CEOs of our time who is credited with turning around IBM shared this about his experience:

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

As a leader, you are the steward of this collective capacity. It’s in your hands.


2 Comments on “Put Culture First”

  1. Great article.

    If I may add to your line “To create workplaces where people thrive”, you could have stated “To create effective workplaces….”; great culture in an organization are a totally selfish thing. They make the company more effective.

    Ps: Great cultures also attract the best people.

  2. Great Post. I’ve read the Zappos book too, and since then I am also looking forwarding to improve my company culture.


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